How Greater Security Could Lead to Greater Transparency


I’ve just had a chance to skim the opinion in the Department of Homeland Security v. Washington Post case, but it looks to me like it has some interesting implications for opening up Congress. (Its on Lexis, so I can’t link.)

The case requires the Secret Service to expedite the Washington Post FOIA request for disclosure of the logs of visits to Vice President Cheney’s office. (It does not, as the papers say, require that disclosure, but it suggests it will likely be required.)

There are two critical features of it. The first is that the judge allows for expedition of the case based on the “urgency to inform the public.” This creates a legal precedent that information about lobbyist access to politicians is “urgent” to inform the public in a timely manner.

The second is that FOIA applies in this case, despite Cheney’s argument that the records were not Secret Service records, but records of his own office. The court rejects this argument, noting that the Secret Service performed the collection of records in the execution of its own duty, and in fact possesses the records — meaning that FOIA applies. What that means is that if any Executive Agency possesses records of visits to Congress and Senators, we should be able to access them through FOIA, and get those requests expedited. (Because FOIA does not apply to Congress, a dastardly exception if I’ve heard one, we cannot directly go through Congress). Because the Secret Service protects the VIce President at his home, the order also applies to his home. The order applies to anywhere logs are taken and kept.

In other words, anywhere the police, Secret Service, or other executive agency logs visitors, the public has a right to access that information. A beneficial effect of a higher security may be higher transparency. While all Agency logs are already subject to FOIA, this ruling makes me curious about other circumstances in which logs are taken. Do people ever have to sign in with some security force to visit Members of Congress? If not, why not? If we required logging in to visit Senators and members of Congress, we could have greater security and greater transparency at the same time.

Likewise, if the police keep videotapes or still images of people entering the buildings, those should be subject to FOIA as well.

While I don’t imagine we’ll get anywhere near the favorite luncheon spots of lobbyists, we may, at least, be able to soon find out who is visiting whom in the federal buildings where greater security is imposed. I don’t know if, and where, such logs or videotapes exist, but someone, surely, can find out soon.

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